Prigozhin: Theories persist as Russia axes plane crash investigation

Is Yevgeny Prigozhin really buried here? Wagner chief’s widow and daughter visit grave… but theories he is alive persist as Russia axes plane crash investigation in ‘cover up’ after failing to reveal body

  • Russia says Wagner warlord Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash on August 23
  • His funeral was held on Tuesday, but a huge security presence and a lack of a body being displayed has fuelled speculation that all is not as it seems

A week after he was killed in a plane crash, a funeral was held Tuesday for Wagner’s notorious chief Yevgeny Prigozhin – shrouded in secrecy and under tight security.

Despite Russia formally confirming the Warlord’s death, speculation remains rife over whether Prigozhin was truly on the aircraft, with some suggesting the funeral and official statements are all part of an elaborate ruse involving a body double.

No body was revealed during the ceremony, and a ring of armed guards were stationed around the cemetery to prevent well wishers or supporters from getting close. Only a select few attended, Prigozhin’s widow and daughter among them.

Suspicions have been fuelled further today with Brazil revealing that Russia has acted to cover-up the crash by refusing to probe it under international rules.

The South American country said Moscow had informed its aviation investigation authority that it would not probe the crash of the Brazilian-made Embraer jet that plummeted from the sky on August 23 en route to St Petersburg.

A week after he was killed in a plane crash, a funeral was held yesterday for Wagner’s notorious chief Yevgeny Prigozhin – under tight security and secrecy

Speculation remains rife over whether Prigozhin was truly on the aircraft, with some suggesting the funeral and public statements are all part of an elaborate ruse involving a body double. Pictured: A man wearing a shirt with the logo of Wagner group stands next to the grave of Prigozhin at the Porokhovskoye cemetery in Saint Petersburg, Russia, August 30

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s widow Lyubov Prigozhina (third left) and the Wagner mercenary army supremo’s daughter Polina, (fourth left) are seen leaving Porokhovskoye cemetery in St Petersburg on Tuesday after attending a funeral service for the Wagner warlord

In this image taken from video, smoke and flames rise from a crashed private jet – belonging to Yevgeny Prigozhin – near the village of Kuzhenkino, Tver region, Russia, August 23

The Kremlin has denied it had any involvement in taking out the business jet and killing – according to official accounts – ten people. The dead included Prigozhin, two top lieutenants of his Wagner Group and four bodyguards.

READ MORE: Putin suffers his worst night of bombardment since invading Ukraine

But analysts say the suspicious crash was retribution meted out by Vladimir Putin – a theory dismissed as ‘absolute lies’ by the Kremlin.

The crash came two months to the day after Prigozhin and his mercenaries staged a brief mutiny against the Russian defence establishment that posed the biggest challenge to the Russian president’s rule since he rose to power in 1999.

For many, it was a surprise that the man known as ‘Putin’s Chef’ lasted as long as he did after humiliating the Russian tyrant so publicly. But others have suggested Prigozhin is not dead at all, and was not buried in the ceremony on Tuesday.

The Wagner warlord was buried at a cemetery held on the outskirts of his hometown of St Petersburg at around 1pm local time with just a small group in attendance.

Red, white, and yellow flowers were seen laid on top of his wooden grave which was watched by his widow and eldest daughter – as well as scores of armed Russian police officers and private security stationed around the necropolis.

Lyubov Prigozhina, 52, and the Wagner mercenary supremo’s elder daughter Polina, 31, were seen wearing dark glasses as they emerged from the graveyard.

But despite their attendance, extraordinary claims persist that Prigozhin had not boarded the plane and thus cheated death in the crash.

Prigozhin is ‘alive, well, and free’ in an unnamed country, according to political analysts Dr Valery Solovey, a former professor at Moscow’s prestigious Institute of International Relations [MGIMO], a training school for spies and diplomats.

Dr Solovey claims that Prigozhin put his body double on the plane, and is now plotting his revenge against those that targeted him.

He also claims that the Russian authorities lied about finding his DNA on a corpse, and that Prigozhin is in hiding in an unnamed country.

First, the plane in which Yevgeny Prigozhin was supposed to fly was downed by a Russian air defence system,’ he said, challenging US intelligence claims that the plane was destroyed by a blast on board.

‘There was no explosion on board. It was downed from the outside.’

The secret operation to carry out this strike ‘was developed in [Russia’s] Security Council, and was sanctioned personally by the Russian president [Vladimir Putin].’

The warlord is now ‘alive, well, and free’, Solovey claims. 

‘Prigozhin himself was not on board. His double was flying instead of him. By the way, Vladimir Putin is perfectly aware of that.

‘If you believe official statements of the Russian authorities, then what can I say…?’

Dr Solovey said he would reveal Prigozhin’s supposed country of exile early next month but denied it was in Africa where Wagner has multiple interests.

Suspicions that Russia is not telling the full truth about Prigozhin’s fate were also raised by the huge security presence at the ceremony on Tuesday.

Scores of police and security personnel formed a ring around the cemetery.

People were banned from entering even through metal detectors hastily erected at the site. Some police carried anti-drone guns.

Some commented that it was ‘the most protected cemetery in the world’. It was also noted that Prigozhin’s body was not seen at any point during the funeral.

A view shows the grave of Wagner private mercenary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who Russia says was killed in a private jet crash in the Tver region last week, at the Porokhovskoye cemetery in Saint Petersburg on August 30

Police guard at the entrance of the Porokhovskoye cemetery in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 29, where a funeral for mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was held

Heavy security is seen around the cemetery during the funeral ceremony of Yevgeny Prigozhin who Russia says died in a plane crash in Saint Petersburg on August 29

Russian policemen scan the skies during the funeral of PMC Wagner group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin on Porokhovskoye cemetery in St. Petersburg, August 29

What’s more, Russia informed Brazil’s aircraft investigation authority that it will not probe the crash under international rules ‘at the moment’, the Brazilian agency told Reuters news agency on Tuesday.

Brazil’s Center for Research and Prevention of Aeronautical Accidents (CENIPA), in the interests of improving aviation safety, had said it would join a Russian-led investigation if it were invited and the probe held under international rules.

Russia’s aviation authority was not obligated to say yes to CENIPA, but some former investigators said it should, as the US and other Western governments suspect the Kremlin of being behind the crash of a plane with a good safety record.

On Monday, a picture from the plane’s crash site showed all the soil has been mysteriously removed by bulldozers. The reason is not clear. 

Prigozhin was publicly critical of Moscow’s prosecution of its invasion of Ukraine. The Wagner mercenaries fought battles there on Russia’s side.

According to the Montreal-based United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the flight from Moscow with a destination of St Petersburg was domestic, so it is not subject to international rules known throughout the industry by their legal name ‘Annex 13.’

‘They are not obliged, only recommended to do that,’ CENIPA head Air Brigadier Marcelo Moreno said after the agency sent an email last week asking Russia whether it would open such a probe. ‘But if they say they’ll open the investigation and invite Brazil we will participate from afar.

The secrecy and confusion surrounding the decision, as well as the funeral of Prigozhin and his top lieutenants, reflected a dilemma faced by the Kremlin amid swirling speculation that the crash was likely a vendetta for his June 23-24 uprising.

While it tried to avoid any pomp-filled ceremony for him, the Kremlin could not afford to denigrate Prigozhin, who reportedly received Russia’s highest award for leading Wagner forces in Ukraine and was idolised by many of the country’s hawks.

Putin’s comments on Prigozhin’s death reflected that careful stand. He noted last week that Wagner leaders ‘made a significant contribution’ to the fighting in Ukraine and described Prigozhin as a ‘talented businessman’ and ‘a man of difficult fate’ who had ‘made serious mistakes in life’.

On Monday, a picture showed all the soil has been mysteriously removed by bulldozers at the plane’s main crash site. The reason is not clear

A view shows a portrait of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin at a makeshift memorial in Moscow, Russia August 24, 2023

A young woman lights a candle as others stand at an informal street memorial with flowers and lit candles for Wagner Group’s military group members who Russia says were killed last week

Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, noted that Prigozhin has become a legendary figure for his supporters who are increasingly critical of the authorities.

‘Last photos of Yevgeny Prigozhin’ show Wagner warlord smiling and posing for selfies with fans in Africa days before fatal plane crash near Moscow 

‘Prigozhin’s funeral raises an issue of communication between the bureaucratic Russian government system that doesn’t have much political potential and politically active patriotic segment of the Russian public,’ Markov said.

The country’s top criminal investigation agency, the Investigative Committee, officially confirmed Prigozhin’s death on Sunday.

The committee did not say what might have caused Prigozhin’s business jet to plummet from the sky on August 23, minutes after taking off from Moscow for St Petersburg.

Just before the crash, Prigozhin had reportedly returned from a trip to Africa, where he sought to expand Wagner Group’s activities.

A preliminary US intelligence assessment concluded that an intentional explosion caused the plane to crash, and Western officials have pointed to a long list of Putin’s foes who have been assassinated. The Kremlin rejected Western allegations the president was behind the crash as an ‘absolute lie.’

Although both were from St Petersburg, Prigozhin and Putin were not known to be particularly close.

Prigozhin, an ex-convict who earned millions and his nickname ‘Putin’s chef’ from lucrative government catering contracts, served Kremlin political interests and helped expand Russia’s clout by sending his mercenaries to Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and other countries.

Wagner, one of the most capable elements of Moscow’s forces, played a key role in Ukraine where it captured the Ukrainian eastern stronghold of Bakhmut in late May.

The crash came exactly two months after the brutal and profane mercenary boss launched a rebellion against the Russian military leadership. 

Prigozhin ordered his mercenaries to take over the military headquarters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and then began a march on Moscow. They downed several military aircraft, killing more than a dozen pilots.

Putin had vowed to punish the participants but hours later struck a deal that saw Prigozhin ending the mutiny in exchange for amnesty and permission for him and his troops to move to Belarus.

The fate of Wagner, which until recently played a prominent role in Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine and was involved in a number of African and Middle Eastern countries, is uncertain.

Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya) servicemen stand guard at the Porokhovskoye cemetery where a funeral was held for Wagner private mercenary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin

Putin said Wagner fighters could sign a contract with the Russian military, move to Belarus or retire from service. Several thousand went to Belarus, where they are in a camp southeast of the capital, Minsk.

Russian state television, which for decades has served as the main source of information for the vast majority of Russians, barely covered the funeral at all.

One major channel, Russia 1, dedicated less than one minute of air time to it in its evening news bulletin, only to say that the funeral ceremony took place ‘without outsiders and the press at the request of the family’ and that Prigozhin’s grave is right next to that of his father, who died in 1978.

Another popular station, Channel One, ignored it completely in their evening news.

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